Within hours of hearing a plane carrying asylum seekers might land in New Jersey, volunteers and organizers had assembled at the Teterboro Airport — ready with diapers, food and greeting signs stuffed in their cars.
But no migrants ever arrived. Instead, Ultimate Air Shuttle 11 touched down in Teterboro with only crew on board.
On Tuesday, about 15 residents huddled at the parking lot of a restaurant adjacent to Teterboro Airport, as regional and national media raised alarm over the possibility that Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis could be sending dozens more migrants north from Texas. The same plane had taken migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last week, in a move many Democratic leaders have decried as a political stunt and an abuse of vulnerable people.
Some of those gathered had learned of the flight after being contacted by Gothamist, which was tracking its movements and seeking information about any local response.
The Ultimate Air flight initially appeared headed to Delaware — President Joe Biden’s home state. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz had tweeted just days ago: “Rehoboth Beach, Delaware next,” helping fuel speculation. A flight plan reflected on online trackers first had the plane heading from Texas to Florida to Delaware before eventually coming to Teterboro.
Those plans changed midday. The plane left Texas, hours later than what was reflected on the original flight plan. It went to Nashville, then Teterboro, bypassing Delaware entirely. Meanwhile, government and social agencies in Delaware braced to provide and care for a wave of migrants they only suspected were coming. DeSantis, for his part, told reporters in Florida he wouldn’t confirm any plans for the flight.
As of Tuesday night, it remained unclear why the flight plans apparently changed midday, or if DeSantis’ office had in fact played any role in the day’s events.
“It was kind of like a fire drill in a way,” said Laura Bustamante, policy and campaign manager with the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “We can’t take it other than serious because what would have happened if 20 people landed at Teterboro and had nowhere to go? This is what we have to do, especially because government is so limited in rapid response.”
She said several organizations were able to secure short-term housing, attorneys, translation services, transportation, and food from restaurants ready to donate hot meals.
“Either way people will find themselves in New Jersey one way or another,” Bustamante said, referring to the more than 11,000 asylum seekers Texas has sent to New York City since May. “We are all really committed to helping people and making sure people are treated like humans.”
A spokeswoman said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy believed “exploiting vulnerable people for a political stunt by sending them to another state unannounced under false pretenses is reprehensible,” and that “every migrant deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”
The governor’s office wouldn’t say what if any resources it was deploying to Teterboro, but said it was ready to assist in the local emergency operations response if needed. A Bergen County spokesperson said county services were also on standby.
As organizers waited for the plane to land, some were escorted off the airport terminal and instead set up headquarters at La Havana 59, a nearby restaurant.
“We’re trying to meet every cruelty that they have with kindness,” Dorothy Wetzel, board president of First Friends of NJ & NY, said.
As planes zoomed overhead and more organizers trickled in, Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, gave periodic updates, checking the flight status and checking with government officials.
Around 6:30 p.m. some organizers parked at a nearby Chick-Fil-A to make sure there was no one but crew members coming off the plane, Bustamante said. She said two migrants from Texas did arrive, but on a commercial flight to Newark Liberty Airport, and did not appear to be connected to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s planned migrant flights.
Throughout the day, immigrant advocates, reporters and other interested parties tracked the flight, sharing updates on social media as they tried to determine what exactly, if anything, was happening.
Roy H. Miller Jr., the director of the East Texas Regional Airport where the flight originated, said his phone had been ringing all day. The airport usually only knows so much about a flight and its passengers, he said. But Ultimate Air Shuttle 11 had arrived Monday with only crew on board, and left Tuesday the same way, he said.
“From our standpoint, it was a tempest in a teapot — they just landed here to get fuel is all we knew,” Miller said.